by John Gallant

eBay’s CIO Succeeds by Innovating and ‘Connecting the Dots’

May 16, 201319 mins
CIOE-commerce SoftwareInnovation

eBay CIO Scott Seese says he and his team are using technology and innovation to drive the company's mission of connected commerce. He explains how the ecommerce giant taps into the power of social and mobile to help customers find and purchase exactly what they seek from among millions of sellers. Seese also discusses his strategy for success and why it's important to connect the dots.

If the eBay name conjures up images of late 1990’s-style online auctions, you’ve got a lot to learn about how the $14 billion company is enabling all flavors of online and offline commerce–with and without bidding–these days.

CIO Scott Seese and his team support the technology and innovation functions that make it possible for customers to snag everything from cars to clothing via mobile devices, at retail locations, even television. Seese is helping eBay drive its mission of connected commerce to new venues and new partners like The Home Depot and Foot Locker, and capturing the power of social to help people find exactly what they want from among millions of sellers around the world.

Scott Seese, eBay CIO

In this installment of the IDG Enterprise CIO Interview Series, Seese speaks with Chief Content Officer John Gallant about his role in driving this transformation and what’s ahead for eBay. He shares his advice for making acquisitions successful from a tech perspective and how he’s developing his team to deal with the rapidly shifting tech landscape. Seese also explains his philosophy for “connecting the dots” in order to ensure IT is effective in empowering eBay’s business success.

Seese is a member of the CIO Executive Council–IDG Enterprise’s peer-based global community of leading CIOs.

[Tech Titans Talk: The IDG Enterprise Interview Series]

Q: What are the big strategic developments underway at eBay right now?

A: As mentioned at our Analyst Day in March, our company enabled $175 billion of commerce in 2012. And, in 2015, we expect our company to enable $300 billion in this global commerce revolution, which leaves us with three clear takeaways that we are focused on: An expanded addressable market; how we are well positioned to capitalize and lead; how we are driving clear mobile commerce leadership and mobile innovation.

Q: Let’s drill into that. First, let’s talk about the concept and then, secondly, talk about how that translates into new capabilities for merchants or customers.

A: Through each of our business units: Marketplaces, PayPal and GSI, we are able to help change how consumers behave all over the world. For eBay Inc. this means more opportunity and more ways to innovate, to engage consumers, to take the friction out of commerce and to help retailers and brands of all sizes compete and win.

For Marketplaces, we are continuing to focus on accelerating innovation at eBay with new initiatives like eBay Now, our pilot same-day delivery service that lets shoppers in San Francisco, New York City and San Jose order a product from a participating local retailer and experience the convenience of same-day delivery, from phone to door in as little as an hour. It’s a great example of how online and offline commerce have blurred into new commerce experiences. [There is also the recently unveiled feature, called Feed, a personalized feed of products based on the interests, brands and trends that match your passions and preferences to create a unique and personal shopping experience.]

For PayPal, we’re continuing to make progress to solve the pain points for consumers and create value for merchants across diverse retail service categories. By continuing to build great product experiences, we are focused on making PayPal available everywhere, and leveraging our ability to drive payment innovation globally.

And, for GSI, we are continuing to invest and drive value for customers through eBay Inc. solutions, including mobile app development, buy online and pick up in-store and mobile express checkout.

Q: How does eBay’s purpose and mission actually take shape in specific offerings, whether it’s for the people who are selling or the people who are on the buying end?

A: eBay has always been a company with a strong sense of purpose. We believe technology is enabling more connected commerce, creating more opportunity for more people. We believe both big and small players can succeed. It’s not a zero sum game.

Q: Can you give me some concrete examples of how your technology changes are enabling more connected commerce?

A: Let’s just take We recently rolled out a new homepage for U.S. users that incorporates the Feed, the biggest homepage change in eBay’s history. Feed is a new and personal way to curate your own shopping experience and discover items perfect for you through a highly visual, browse experience.

It’s shoppable, continually updated and based on personalized interests, brands and trends, and inspires customers, who can choose from among 400 million listings at any given time. So I’m going to admit it. I actually curated my Feed and I indicated that I’m a Los Angeles Dodgers fan, and I also indicated that I went to Ohio State, so I’m an Ohio State Buckeyes fan. And yes, I watch NASCAR and my favorite driver is Jimmie Johnson, and all of a sudden I had loaded all of these personal interests into my Feed and it really wasn’t that much effort, but was just–selecting what I like.

The power of what I personally like combined with the world’s largest selection of products, and John, something magical started happening. My homepage became a stream of pictures of items for sale on eBay curated just for me and it was like–oh, there’s Jimmie Johnson’s autograph, the thing I’ve been after for a long time. And I click the picture for more info and I bought it.

I found an Ohio State Buckeye hat I’ve been looking for forever, the old Woody Hayes style hat. I found a Tommy Lasorda shirt from a long time ago, the Dodgers team that won the World Series a few times, and I can tell you every player that was out there. But I’m finding these things and I’m able to interact with it in a very engaging and interactive way, discovering items versus the previous homepage, which was much more search-based to find exactly what you’re looking for.

With the Feed, you put in an interest, you get a whole bunch of results for that specific interest populating your Feed. You refine your interests, and you get more relevant results back. You hone your interests down and boom, there’s a curated Feed of items for me that I want. We’re creating an experience by combining the power of someone’s personal interests with the power of the world’s largest selection. That’s what I mean by enabling commerce, making it more personal and more powerful with a seamless omnichannel experience with every connected device in our lives.

Q: Can you talk about other personalization through apps?

A: Yes. One example that we just announced a partnership with LG which has PayPal enabled on their smart TV platform allowing you to pay through your connected TV.

Q: That’s great. I want to stay high level for a minute. We’ll drill down into things like how you’re capitalizing on mobile or social, but when you take this connected commerce theme, how does that change the mission or the role of the IT Department at eBay?

A: In the same way that our customers are starting to innovate very quickly in how they consider what they’re going to buy, consider what they’re shopping for, actually go out and shop for and actually buy it, and then have it delivered to them. Our employees are innovating in how they want devices, how they want services, how they want housing and seating, how they want to be safe and secure, all of that is innovating through social, local, mobile, all in real time.

Q: Let’s drill down into a couple of those things that are on the minds of a lot of the CIOs we talk to today. Let’s talk about mobile. We know mobile changes everything, but specifically how does it change the game for eBay Inc and for your team?

A: Look at eBay Motors, which is one of eBay’s most downloaded apps. You can save your car [information] into the eBay Garage and it will allow you to easily find parts that fit your specific car(s), allow you to purchase them right on your phone, and have the part shipped to your house. And always the favorite way to pay as an option is PayPal.

[In addition], it also puts eBay’s full inventory of new and used cars on the mobile device and people are actually using their mobile devices to buy cars. Now you would be saying–well, how many cars do you sell through that? We sell on average over 11,000 cars a week globally through the mobile device alone.

“Winning the hearts and minds of employees is the first step towards developing the innovations that will meet customers’ changing needs.”

–eBay CIO Scott Seese

In terms of my team, mobile has also played a role with how we innovate. Recently, my team won a hackathon contest when they created a mobile application to enable employees to pre-order lunch from our café. You can buy your lunch while on the way to lunch. It will give you a text message back that you can pick your lunch up at 11:45. You pay for it before you even get there.

You completely skip the line where everybody else is [waiting to] get their food prepped [and] paid for. You walk in and you’re treated like royalty and you pick up your food and you walk away. And everybody’s trying to figure out–why is John so special and why did he get to skip the line?

We happened to build that internally and we call it Café eBay, and that’s actually translating to other companies that are starting to roll it out through their facilities. As a result of Café eBay, we actually got the opportunity to partner with our product development teams to create a similar experience for Jamba Juice. This is a great example of how my team’s innovation for our employees has translated to outside customers as well.

Q: I know another major initiative is putting capabilities offline as well. Can you talk about what you’re doing with your merchant partners?

A: Our direct relationships with large merchant partners like The Home Depot, Jamba Juice and Foot Locker (and 20 others) are going very well. But that’s just a piece of the PayPal omnichannel retail opportunity. As you know, we’re also working on a partnership with Discover to allow PayPal acceptance in 2 million U.S. locations by the end of 2013. And of course, we have an amazing small business solution in PayPal here, which is a global mobile payments solution allowing small businesses of any size to accept multiple forms of payment with their mobile phone or iPad via a card reader and other technology built into the apps. We want consumers to truly experience the advantage of PayPal any time, anywhere–and there’s definitely more to come.

Q: You’ve been challenged to support a large number of acquisitions, which is a really tricky part of the CIO job. What have you learned from these? What are the lessons and strategies that you’ve picked up from doing this well?

A: One of the biggest lessons was that we executed and operated with a sharp focus and discipline. We have closed multiple acquisitions over the last few years, and I would say that there are certain things as you integrate the acquisitions that are just non-negotiable. We will put the right level of information security into place. We will always ensure our data is protected in the right way.

We will make a consistent look and feel for how people can come into the offices and do their job on a day-to-day basis, and we will drive a consistency of how people can use their tools and experiences no matter where they are in the world or which company they came into eBay Inc. through.

We want the customer experience to be great, to protect the reason why we bought the company to begin with. But then we also focus on never getting in the way of the value that that company brings. If they’re a great company that innovates very rapidly, give them the space to innovate very rapidly. We have had some target talent groups that came in that tremendously increased our capabilities by the innovation that they could bring forward rather quickly.

Q: What are you doing to ensure that your infrastructure can support all these new initiatives which are diverse and challenging?

A: We actually have a very big focus on taking a lot of the home-grown perfection that was created very early on in eBay’s journey, and we’re now transforming that into enterprise and scalable capabilities. We’re taking physical-to-virtual and virtual-to-the-cloud as appropriate to the class of service and the type of data that we’re referencing.

We’re enabling our employees to have the choice of where they want to work, how they want to work and on the devices they choose to be able to do the work. And by implementing that philosophy we have actually made it easier for the company to scale. Infrastructure going physical to virtual to cloud, making it agnostic to device, browser or operating system, it actually makes it easier to scale when you take those things into consideration, and which we are absolutely driving towards.

Q: Where are you seeing the challenges in terms of talent or skill sets? What are the areas you really need to augment?

A: It’s interesting because we find that there is this unique divide, that early in the IT careers we’re having all of this demand to completely build our pipeline and have a full pipeline of talent. But yet we see this underprivileged youth that doesn’t have the opportunity to gain skills and jump into these opportunities. So we’ve partnered with other companies in the Valley with something called Year Up.

“Year Up” was actually a book that was written, a top 10 best-seller, and Scott Donohue and a whole bunch of others actually created this opportunity that bridged the divide of urban youth that is taught technical skills to become productive in the world. It’s actually feeding our very early entry pipeline that is helping to bridge the gap, make us more successful as a company, and gives back to the communities that we represent.

We also have a huge focus on developing the next generation of leaders in our company by leaning in and doing talent assignment management, giving people new, broader, expanded opportunities to develop in the areas where they need to grow. So we have programs in place [for] feeding the early pipeline, to developing the pipeline all the way up through to CIOs in training. We are developing or recruiting niche skills to build that next generation of leaders, not just for the office of CIO but for the company.

I actually have a special lens where I’m not only focused on developing the next generation of leaders, but I want to develop the next generation of women leaders also.

[ Related: Where Are the Women CIOs? Three Speak Out ]

[ Related: 10 Leading Women in Tech ]

Q: What is the skill set that is most in need today? Is there a particular intersection of business and IT role, or something else, data scientist, what’s on the radar?

A: I would say two areas that are in high demand and limited supply–mobile and information security.

Q: Mobile from a development perspective?

A: Absolutely. Mobile development that really enables the end-user experience in a frictionless way especially with a focus on applications that enable employees to be more productive and to more quickly and effectively serve customers.

Q: We’ve talked about the company. We’ve talked about the department and issues and opportunities. How has all this changed your role? How has it changed the way you intersect with business?

A: In the 2 1/2 years I’ve been here, we’ve started to transform, and have transformed the IT organization to be more customer-centric, proactive, and driving a return on the investment more than I think maybe in the company’s history. That led to the company expanding my role, to say–hey, can you not only run IT, but would you pick up customer service technology also? Would you pick up all of corporate real estate, facilities operations, physical security under the umbrella that we call workplace resources?

But then also would you take on information security, enterprise resiliency, disaster recovery and business continuity for the whole eBay Inc. company? But that’s typical at eBay Inc. We have a fast-paced dynamic organization and we’re focused on delivering. The good news is that when you look at it carefully all these roles knit together well because they are about enabling and supporting employees to succeed at work in a variety of ways through technology and other support.

Q: How many years have you been doing this, how many years have you been a CIO?

A: Well, quite a few years. I would actually have to go back through. I was working for 20 plus years, and you could divide my career kind of up into thirds, where I did three different startups, and all three of those companies are still up and running, in the early third of my career.

That launched me into the second phase of my career, where I ended up living and working in 16 countries around the world, where I did a lot of merger and acquisition work. I did a lot of business operational excellence work, helped businesses close their books, solve complicated problems and create the next businesses that they would launch into for the future.

That launched me into my CIO career, of which I took a whole bunch of CIO roles up to and including where I was CIO of GE Aircraft Engine Services. If you’ve ever flown on a plane, look at the wing and it was a GE engine, I was the CIO there for about 5, 5 1/2 years, got recruited to a little financial services company called Bank of America. I helped lead their technology organization for their credit card division. We did a little acquisition and became the largest credit card issuer in the world, did the technology there for not only credit cards, but for deposits, for their call centers.

My role was expanded to not only run the technology but the technology and operations for the global delivery around the world. So I ran a significant portion of the technology for the retail banks at Bank of America. And then I got a tap on the shoulder about 2 1/2, almost 3 years ago to join this wonderful company on the West Coast called eBay Inc.

Q: The CIO role is in pretty significant transition. You have some companies bringing in chief digital officers, the chief innovation officer, because they don’t feel that the CIO is driving change or business results. What’s your advice? You’re in a fast moving company that’s really setting the pace for globalization. What’s your advice for CIOs today?

A: I’m going to share something my father shared with me, he’s been my mentor my entire life. Connect the dots around you, connect with the people around you, and you can change the world. I really believe that distinguishes the CIOs of tomorrow from the technologists of yesterday. If all you can do is sustainably run the technology you’re responsible for and you can get the BlackBerries to work, why would the CEO care about what you can do next? If you can connect the dots around you, connect with the people around you, and change the company in the way that you can change the world, now you have the skills of the CIO of tomorrow.

Q: Tell me how they do it? How do they connect those dots?

A: I would say that you have to connect through not only your key stakeholders and business partners around the entire company, but you have to have a deliberate set of mentors and people that you interact with around the world in the industry that keeps you insightful to what’s happening around the world. I belong to a group called E50.

[The folks at E50] they have connected me to Becky Quick on CNBC. They have connected me to the recently retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of two presidents, Admiral Mike Mullen. They have connected me to Larry Bossidy [former CEO of AlliedSignal and top GE executive]. They have connected me to VC startup people. They have connected me to all of these incredible people that I have interacted with that helped shape [me].

I wasn’t connecting the dots around me until they showed me what the dots were. By connecting with the people around me, the Scott Donohue’s of the world, the people with Year Up etc., all of a sudden we have changed 2,000 young urban adult lives, their communities and employed a ton of people while solving the talent search that we had out there feeding our entry level pipeline.

If you can connect the dots around you and you connect with the people around you, you can change the world. So I hope that’s an example of what I mean by what my father taught me.

Q: If someone in your IT organization today is coming up and they want to be a CIO in the future, they take a look at your role and they think that’s something that they would like to do, what’s your advice to them?

A: I think I just gave you the biggest piece of advice that I give to the Year Up interns, to the recent college grads, to the early technologist, to the senior technologist, to the early real estate, early physical security, all the way up through enterprise health and safety. I don’t care where you work, connect the dots around you, connect with the people around you, and you can change the company.

Once a month, I schedule a day I call “time-to-think day” and nobody around the world in my organization is allowed to have a meeting. All they’re allowed to do is take the day and try to think about a problem they want to solve in the company. Then once a quarter we have hack-a-thons, where for 30 hours straight we turn our engineers loose on solving one of those bounded problems that we identified and crowdsourced to the top through time-to-think. And in coming out of the hack-a-thon we create proof of concepts.

People are putting things together, John, in a way we would have never imagined. Café eBay, that experience I told you about, was built with 30 cans of Red Bull in one of the hack-a-thons that nobody had even asked us to solve. They solved it on their own.

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